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Lebanese Industry Minister Gunned Down

Lebanon's minister of industry, a vocal anti-Syrian cabinet member, has been shot and killed in a Christian suburb of Beirut. The assassination comes at a politically tense time in the Lebanese capital.

Witnesses say at least three gunmen ambushed Industry Minister Pierre Gemayel, ramming his car before opening fire. Gemayel was rushed to the hospital but died of his wounds.

Television footage of the car he was traveling in showed one window completely blown out, and the other riddled with a large number of bullet holes, closely grouped together and penetrating the thick bulletproof glass. The front end of the silver Kia sedan was crumpled.

Gemayel was a Maronite Christian and a member of the anti-Syrian bloc that rules the Lebanese parliament. His killing comes at an especially tense time in Beirut, when sectarian tensions are running high in the wake of the devastating war between Israel and Hezbollah earlier this year. Pro-Syrian Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah has called for street protests aimed at toppling the government of Prime Minister Fuad Siniora, whom he accuses of having allegiance to the United States.

Earlier in the day, the prime minister defended his government's legitimacy and said his cabinet is still viable despite the resignation of six pro-Syrian ministers.

Gemayel's assassination sets the stage for a showdown between the pro-Syrian and anti-Syrian factions. Outside the hospital where Gemayel died, his father, former President Amin Gemayel, pleaded for calm.

"We do not want to do anything rash," he said. "He died for the cause. He died for Lebanon, for freedom and for humanity. We should not desecrate his memory with irresponsible acts."

The former-president called for "a night of prayer, a night of contemplation about the meaning of this martyrdom and how to protect the country."

"We do not want vengeance," he added.

But there is palpable anger among the anti-Syrian factions.

After the news of the killing spread, outraged crowds poured into the streets in Christian neighborhoods where many supporters of Gemayel live, including around the site of the shooting. Grief-stricken and angry people packed the hallways of the hospital where he died.

There were calls to march on the presidential palace, where pro-Syrian President Emile Lahoud issued a brief televised statement, also urging calm.

"We must identify these criminals, because I assure you they are against all Lebanese," he said. "Your unity is your strength, and the only way out of this conspiracy is to sit together to solve all of Lebanon's problems as soon as possible."

But for the moment, the nation seems anything but unified. Gemayel's death is the latest in a string of assassinations and attempted killings of anti-Syrian politicians, including the car-bomb killing of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, in February last year.

Supporters broke into chanting when Rafik Hariri's son, parliamentary leader Saad Hariri, interrupted a press conference to pass on news of Gemayel's killing, his voice choking with emotion.

"What they promise, they do," he said. "They want to kill every free man. They want to carry out the series of assassinations they have promised."

Saad Hariri pointed the finger at Syria for Gemayel's death, referring to a "murderous regime." The Syrian government has condemned the killing.

In his own televised statement, Prime Minister Siniora said Gemayel's assassination makes Lebanon even more determined to pursue an international tribunal to prosecute the people responsible for the series of political killings.